This is the first of my roadtrip diaries.
You can’t start a roadtrip in central Texas without spending a lot of time trying to get out of Texas. That’s one thing you should know right now, before you start planning your own journey. Day One’s agenda should be simply “drive until you’re almost out of Texas.” Don’t try to conquer another state, just relax and drive. A few years ago I had friends coming to visit from California. They called me a full day before I thought they’d arrive, downright gleeful. “We’ve just crossed the state line!” “Great!” I responded, “but I’ll see you in a day.” It takes a while, is all I’m saying.
So leaving Texas requires seeing a lot of Texas. We usually headed west, through the desert and out towards the westernmost tip of the state. Sometimes we’d dip down and go through Big Bend, almost touching Mexico. If you’ve never been to that part of the country, it’s a sight to see. The earth looks almost like the surface of the moon--dusty, pockmarked, almost completely without vegetation--and it’s so remote and empty. You can see for miles. The stars are so large, bright, and clear that it’s almost like being in a planetarium. Your own personal planetarium. Falling stars abound.
One time, as I was draped across the cooler in the middle watching the ribbon of road unfolding, I noticed that there was a lake across the road, right in front of us. It shimmered and danced in the sun, and looked so cool and inviting, but we never seemed to catch up to it. I asked my mom what it was and learned all about mirages. After that I was on the lookout for mirages everywhere, and would point them out with glee. The lake in the distance? A mirage! The wiggly-looking saguaro cactus? Once you get up close it’s probably straight as an arrow! This delighted me to no end.
My mom was usually in charge of accommodations, and she would consult one of several travel books for restaurants, hotels, and parks for camping. This was back before the Internet or cell phones so we’d usually make reservations before we left or wing it by showing up at a campsite and hoping they had room. They *usually* did, although more than once we had to drive around to our second or even third choice before someone had space for us. One year we were headed to West Texas and decided to stay for a few nights at a state park she’d found in the trusty guidebook. It said there was swimming, which delighted both of us. We were big into swimming and took lessons every summer so that my parents could watch us with one eye while keeping the other on a book and generally trust us not to drown. In addition to swimming, the guidebook promised that this park had boating, fishing, and prairie dogs. This seemed like a very strange thing to include in a list of attractions but we didn’t think much of it past that.
When we finally arrived at the campsite my sister and I had our eyes peeled for this body of water that was big enough for swimming, fishing, and boating. We spotted a large, grassy, roped-off area that was officially prairie dog territory, but no water. Perhaps it was over the next grassy knoll. Once camp was set up we went searching for this water. And searched, and searched, and searched. Nada. We trekked all the way back to the entrance station and asked the camp ranger on duty there. He looked at us and said “sorry girls, that lake dried up a few years ago. The prairie dogs get pretty active around sunset though and if you’re looking for something to do you can watch them.” We returned to the campsite broken-hearted, and looked witheringly at my dad when he pointed out that it was either watching the prairie dogs or the dry lakebed for entertainment. Which is how the entire family, at sunset, came to be watching the prairie dogs run around like crazy. There were literally hundreds of them, and dozens of campers watching. And then the very next morning we packed up and headed out, this time for a place that held real water.